ERIC Identifier: ED259211
Publication Date: 1985-00-00
Author: Naylor, Michele
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.

Adult Development: Implications for Adult Education. Overview. ERIC Digest No. 41.

The recent dramatic increases in life expectancy, rapid changes in technology and sociocultural patterns, a better understanding of the concept of development, and other factors have given adult development an increasingly important place in the investigations of both psychologists and educational researchers (Merriam 1984).


Merriam (1984) mentions four individuals--Carl Jung, Charlotte Buhler, Erik Erikson, and Robert Havighurst--as major figures in the early investigation of adult development and outlines the principal points of the theories underlying their models:

--In his 1930s work, Carl Jung postulates three stages of life--youth, middle age, and old age--based on his own clinical observations. Jung views youth as a period of expanding consciousness, middle age as a period of questioning long-held convictions, and old age as a period of increased introspection and preoccupation with self-evaluation.

--Charlotte Buhler proposes four stages in life. The first period, which extends from birth to age 15, is a period of physical growth in which decisions begin to be made; the second, from age 15 to age 25, is a period of sexual reproduction and goal setting; the third, from age 25 to age 45, is one in which goals are examined and attention begins to be focused inward; and the fourth, from age 46 to age 65, is a time of physcial decline and self-assessment.

--Erik Erikson formulates a theory of human development with a model of eight stages of life. The three adult stages of the model are viewed as struggles devoted to the accomplishment of a primary task: young adulthood, a struggle between intimacy and isolation; middle age, a struggle between generativity and stagnation; and old age, a struggle to achieve a sense of ego integrity.

--Robert Havighurst focuses his attention on various sociocultural patterns and values to which adults must adjust.


In a review of the literature on adult development, Merriam (1984) singles out the following recent theorists and their age-related sequential models of adult development:

--Daniel Levinson proposes a model in which adulthood is characterized by alternating periods of stability when individuals solidify their life structure and periods of transition when that structure is reexamined and modified.

--Roger Gould develops a model comprising six stages of adulthood in which individuals progressively abandon one childhood myth after another, manage to confront reality to a greater degree than before, and eventually succeed in raising their levels of consciousness.

--Gail Sheehy pays particular attention to the development of adult females. She postulates the following developmental stages experienced between the ages of 18 and 50: pulling up roots, trying 20's, Catch 30, rooting and extending, deadline decade, and renewal or resignation.


Several theorists have developed models whose stages depend upon developmental, rather than physical, maturation of the individual. The following researchers developed sequential models with a special focus:

--Jane Loevinger defines an ego as that trait that determines how one views and relates to the world. The terms used to describe these stages are impulsive, self-protective, conformist, conscientious-conformist, conscientious, individualistic, and integrated.

--According to William Perry's theory, individuals begin with a sense of absolute knowledge, come to believe that all knowledge and beliefs are relative, and eventually develop a set of values and an individual sense of reality.

--Lawrence Kohlberg sets forth six stages of intellectual development that involve three levels of cognition: preconventional, conventional, and autonomous or principled.

--James Fowler, formulating a theory of faith development, postulates a six-stage model of the growth of faith from childhood to a final period that may begin in midlife or beyond.


An important relationship exists between adult development and adult education. According to Merriam (1984), one of the best-developed theoretical links between adult development and learning lies in the theory of andragogy. Andragogy is based on the assumption that, by and large, adults are self-directed beings who are the products of an accumulation of unique and personal experiences and whose desires to learn grow out of a need to face the tasks they encounter during the course of their development.


Adult education practitioners at all levels can apply many of the findings of such research to program planning and implementation. Merriam (1984) discusses the following areas in which adult development theory can enhance educational programming.

Program Development and Administration

Program designers can use a knowledge of adult development and adult learning theory to address the following program planning concerns: program objectives, target audience, delivery system, program content, and support services. The Framework for Adult Development Programming proposed by Kummerow, Sillers, and Hummel (1978) focuses on the five items on this list. Adult educational programming is best accomplished using either the tutorial, group, or independent study mode of instruction.

Kummerow and his associates suggest that the following topical areas are the most relevant to the developmental tasks faced by adults: self-assessment, decision making and problem solving, relationships, biological changes, career behavior needs, spirituality, and use of leisure time. Cross's (1981) discussion of the different situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers to learning that exist in various stages of adult life provides insight into some of the support services needed by adult learners of various age groups.


Merriam (1984) proposes that adult educators consider the following as among the most effective instructional techniques for use with adult learners: contract learning, experiential learning, portfolios, and self-pacing. Merriam also suggests that teachers strive to make learning experiences as meaningful as possible for individual learners and that they attempt to refrain from the stereotypical role of authority figure and transmitter of knowledge, functioning instead as a role model or resource person.


Merriam (1984) asserts that, whether making referrals or simply trying to be supportive of their students, adult educators need a thorough understanding of the stages and transitions of adult life, the stages of career development, the interrelationship of adult development and career development, and counseling techniques for use with individuals in transition.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This Digest is based upon S. B. Merriam's ADULT DEVELOPMENT: IMPLICATIONS FOR ADULT EDUCATION. Information Series No. 282. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The National Center for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University, 1984.


Cross, K. P. ADULTS AS LEARNERS. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1981.

Knowles, M. THE MODERN PRACTICE OF ADULT EDUCATION. Revised Edition. Chicago, IL: Association Press/Follett, 1980.

Kummerow, J., B. D. Sillers, and T. J. Hummel. PROGRAMMING FOR ADULT DEVELOPMENT. Minneapolis, MN: Education Career Development Office, University of Minnesota, 1978. ED 159 517.

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